Fair Woodworking

December 17, 2011

Pins vs. Tails

Filed under: chisel,dovetail,Pins,Skill development,Tails — fairwoodworking @ 11:13 pm

Lately, I’ve been a bad little woodworker.

I’ve been reading woodworking, thinking woodworking, talking woodworking, but not doing a lot “of” woodworking.

Yup, the past 6 months, I’ve fallen into the role of “armchair woodworker”. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been doing stuff, but not enough to qualify it as a truly active hobby, but man I can talk about woodworking!

Well, I’ve had a small project (really small) I started in the spring, that has been sitting waiting for me to finish it. I was going to go at it today, but I chickened out. You see the next step is to cut the dovetails, and it’s been a while…

With procrastination at the core, I decided to do some practice dovetails in some scrap pine. That got me to thinking I should take a stab at cutting them “oh natural”. By that I mean no marking gauge, just use a chisel on the opposing piece of wood to mark the base line and start cutting without laying out the tails.

It was just for fun, so I thought, “lets not worry about perfection, just bang these suckers out”. To my surprise they came out nearly perfect!

Then I got to thinking about the whole Pins vs. Tails debate. I’ve thrown my hat into that one a number of times, but really had no business doing so since I’ve never tried Pins first.

So I figured I’d better get that one out of the way as well. Same rules (as in there are no rules). Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.

Well that wasn’t so bad…

So now, can you guess which is which?

They both turned out pretty well, so I can say that they are both very do able. I did find the pins first method faster, but it was also easier to screw up. If you look at the middle tail on the ones to the right.

You will see the evidence of my saw drifting across the line while cutting the tail. Because it was the Pins first version, it couldn’t match up with the pin.

Tails first seems easier to learn for a beginner, but I can see that having learned that way, I’ve never stressed about cutting along the tail lines and not wandering away from them. There was security knowing that so long as the cut was straight, I could make the pin fit to it. I can see how Pins first demands that you sharpen all your sawing skills sooner rather than later.

So on the matter of Pins vs. Tails, my answer is….




  1. Great stuff! I would be very happy with those… Looks like you have them nailed!
    I’m already dreading my next DT project coz I think I got lucky with my first attempt…. heh Woodworking mind games.

    Think how nice it would be to be able to produce quality work without the mark up etc … lovely furniture straight from the saw in a day. I can only dream at the moment… Maybe I’ll try a few ‘freehand’ in the New year.

    Comment by Boo — December 18, 2011 @ 5:58 am

  2. Thanks Simon, This little exercise really opened my eyes to some things.
    Practice is not just about learning how to do something. It’s also about proving to yourself that you can.
    Trying a new technique on practice work is zero stress. New things on a real project can be crippling.

    I don’t know if I ever want to fully turn my back on marking. I like the process of layouts, and I’m not a real big fan of random spacing. I do however like the idea of being able to release the shackles and slam a quick box together using traditional joinery. By the way, the last time I did a practice joint, it took about an hour and a half. These ones took about 30-40 min each. I’m not the type to rush, but it is nice to see things not take so long.

    Comment by fairwoodworking — December 18, 2011 @ 2:24 pm

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